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Quick notes:

  • Elder abuse can be physical, emotional, or financial, and can include neglect and confinement.
  • Loved ones should be on the lookout for signs of elder abuse, such as unexplained bruises or injuries, and take action.
  • Concerns about elder abuse or exploitation can be reported to Adult Protective Services.

Whether it’s abuse that’s physical, financial, or emotional, elder abuse is becoming a significant problem in the U.S.

According to the National Council on Aging, one in 10 U.S. seniors suffers from abuse, often resulting in injury, mental illness, or even death. Elder abuse can come in different forms, including physical abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, confinement, and financial abuse, experts say.

While the numbers of American seniors over the age of 60 being abused are rising, the percentage of seniors reporting those cases of abuse is narrowing, to about one in 14 abuse cases being reported to law enforcement authorities.

The fact is, elder abuse — in all its forms — is an under-the-radar issue that’s only going to grow larger as the Baby Boomers, 77 million strong, continue to flow into older age and retirement.

“The rise of elder abuse is a heinous crime that continues to rise in our society, with too many older adults suffering some type of abuse,” says Jennifer Bembry, founder of Kinkaid Private Care in Beverly Hills, California. “Sadly, the elderly victim is often afraid, or simply unable, to speak up about what they are experiencing at the hands of an abusive caregiver or family member. Advanced age puts the victim in a vulnerable and dependent position, which can provide a target for the unscrupulous abuser.”

Bembry points out some signs that an elderly loved one is being abused:

  • Unsanitary living conditions, personal hygiene neglected, inappropriate clothing for weather conditions
  • Signs of financial exploitation such as unusual bank withdrawals or missing cash
  • Bruises, fractures, signs of being physically restrained, broken eyeglasses
  • Signs of emotional abuse, such as becoming withdrawn, rocking and mumbling
  • Bleeding or bruising around the genitals

She also says it’s up to family members and close friends to act when they do see potential abuse.

“Loved ones must be the eyes and ears for their elderly relative, to be ever vigilant and alert on their behalf in order to avoid the potential of elder abuse,” Bembry says.

Who is most at risk? Seniors who are isolated, or who are starting to have mental decline, are at an increased risk for abuse and exploitation.

“This is especially true regarding financial exploitation by strangers, such as phone scammers or local individuals who work their way into the senior’s life,” says Alyssa Elting McGuire, a consultant and training specialist at Oregon Care Home Consulting LLC.

Warning signs aren’t always easy to detect, especially since there are multiple ways a senior can suffer elder abuse.

“You need to recognize the warning signs,” says McGuire. “For instance, with financial abuse, is there suddenly a person who shows too much interest in the senior? Is the senior suddenly buying things for this individual? Has the senior mentioned anything about changing their will or adding this person to the title of their home? These are all signs of potential elderly abuse.”

Taking action against elder abuse

Job one in protecting a family member from elder abuse is getting educated — and the more the better.

“In order to recognize the signs of abuse, we need to understand those signs,” says McGuire. “Learn more about the dynamics of family abuse and the difference between exploitation and abuse.”

If you suspect any abuse, neglect, or exploitation, take action.

“If the senior isn’t living in the same home as a family member, check in with neighbors or other seniors you know,” says McGuire. “If you have any concerns about potential abuse or exploitation, contact your local Adult Protective Services office. If there are immediate concerns, protective services can often come out within a couple of hours to investigate.”

“If necessary, they will involve law enforcement, mental health advocates, and others to work on a plan to stop the abuse, prevent further exploitation or abuse, and keep your loved one safe.”

Law enforcement agencies are increasingly devoted specific resources to handle elder abuse cases, and family and friends should take note, experts advise.

“Local state’s attorney’s offices and police often have divisions concerned with senior scams and abuse and have valuable resources,” says Teri Dreher, a registered nurse and owner of NShore Patient Advocates in Chicago, Illinois. “They often give educational programs to groups interested in this escalating social issue, so contact them today to learn more.”

If abuse gets serious

For more serious cases of actual physical abuse, the key is to, once again, know the right warning signs.

“Family members should know that unexplained injuries or bruises, such as injuries from falls, can be warning signs that your loved one is not receiving proper care,” says Margaret Battersby Black, a Chicago, Illinois-based attorney at Levin & Perconti who frequently represents nursing home patients. “Because we tend to think of the elderly as being frail and prone to health issues, we might overlook conditions like having bedsores or becoming dehydrated.”

Battersby Black says these physical issues are “not normal” and, for most patients, should be easily preventable in a well-run, fully staffed facility. “Similarly, unexpected hospitalizations for infections or medication issues are definite red flags that conditions in a nursing home are not what they should be,” she says.

Even if you’re a close relative of the nursing home resident or have power of attorney, you might not be notified of things like bruises, Battersby Black says.

“It’s up to you to notice them and to be on the lookout for other signs of poor care, neglect or abuse,” she adds. “If you arrive for a visit and find that your loved one isn’t properly dressed or isn’t clean, or if you have trouble finding someone to help you or answer your questions, be assertive about making your complaints. Follow up, make unannounced visits as often as you can, and ask for specific plans on how problems will be addressed.”

Also, pay attention to the overall environment of a facility.

“If you’re constantly hearing alarms and buzzers sounding without being answered right away, this is a sign that the nursing home is short-staffed,” Battersby Black says. “Abuse and neglect happen in places where supervision is lacking and where staff are overburdened and stressed.”

For a handy list of other steps to take to act against senior abuse, Bembry offers some valuable “takeaway” tips:

  • Regularly keep in touch with your elderly family member
  • Encourage the elderly family member to remain engaged socially
  • Vet caregivers carefully, check references
  • Avoid isolating the elderly family member
  • Help elders to remain aware of their finances
  • Educate elders to ignore telephone solicitors and email scams

A deeper dive — Related reading on the 101:

Long-term care hospitals are inspiring other facilities to make their patients feel at home.

Technology might be the answer for those individuals who don’t have easy access to health care.